This Date in Native History: On February 21, 1828, the Cherokee Nation published the inaugural edition of its bilingual newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, which helped preserve the culture, history and language of what is now one of the largest tribes.
The Phoenix was the first bilingual newspaper printed in North America, said Kenneth Tankersley, an anthropology professor at the University of Cincinnati. It also was the first paper published by American Indians and the first printed in a Native language.
The weekly newspaper, published shortly after the tribe acquired a printing press and had it shipped to the tribal capital of New Echota, Georgia, introduced a written Cherokee language that was quite simple to learn, Tankersley said. Following the publication, the literacy rate of the Cherokee quickly exceeded that of Europeans and Euro-Americans.
“The significance of acquiring the first printing press and the publication of the Cherokee Phoenix in 1828 can best be viewed in terms of cultural survival,” said Tankersley, who is Cherokee and Piqua Shawnee. “Language is crucial to the survival of cumulative tribal knowledge, tribal history and tribal wisdom.”
The Phoenix was printed as Native children across the country were being forced into boarding schools and stripped of their languages and cultures. More than half of all Native languages were lost. Two years before the paper printed, Elias Boudinot, the first editor, shared a vision of what the Phoenix would be.
“There must exist a vehicle of Indian intelligence altogether different from those which have heretofore been employed,” Boudinot said in 1826.
Because of the Phoenix, the Cherokee saved their language and preserved a written history of events. But none of that would have happened without a man named Sequoyah, who invented the written Cherokee language.
Also known as George Gist or George Guess, Sequoyah was born in Tennessee sometime between 1760 and 1780, Tankersley said. A skilled blacksmith, silversmith and engraver, Sequoyah wanted a way to sign his name on his work.
By 1809, Sequoyah was working on a written syllabary—or a symbol for every Cherokee word. He soon turned to phonetic symbols that represented the 85 distinct syllables in the Native language.
“In order for a language to be written, spoken words have to be encoded in written symbols so that another reader can accurately recreate those spoken words,” Tankersley said. “For most cultures around the world, this process gradually evolved over thousands of years. Sequoyah accomplished in a matter of years what took others thousands of years to develop.”
The syllabary was complete in 1821 and tested among the people. Within months, the entire Cherokee Nation was literate, “without a single schoolhouse or teacher,” Tankersley said.
By 1825, the symbols were ready for print and the tribe officially adopted them as the official written language. The symbols, deeply rooted in the Cherokee creation stories and sometimes based on Arabic letters, actually resemble traditionally significant images, Tankersley said.
For example, the symbol for the syllable “ya” resembles a rock shelter behind a waterfall, and the symbol for the syllable “hu” looks like a tomahawk.
Those symbols still are printed in the Cherokee Phoenix, which now is a monthly publication that continues to offer news and feature stories in Cherokee and English, said Bryan Pollard, the newspaper’s executive editor.
“We are one of the few sources of a contemporary use of the language,” he said. “It’s important that we continue to use the language because it’s a service not only to people who are able to read Cherokee, but also for Cherokee who are trying to learn the language or brush up on skills.”
The paper, now based in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, reaches a print audience of 15,000, Pollard said. It also produces a weekly radio show and an electronic newsletter that goes to 40,000 people. The paper’s online edition receives about 400,000 views per month.
The Phoenix continues to fill an important role for the tribe, Pollard said. It covers politics, government, court cases and people features. The paper also serves as an advocate for language revitalization and programs that promote the traditional arts.
“Another important aspect of our coverage is that we cover a lot of the nuances of our government that don’t get covered by mainstream at all,” Pollard said. “If we don’t cover it, it does not get covered.”
Pollard said the words of Boudinot, the paper’s first editor, still are inspiring.
“We must have a newspaper that conveys the innate intelligence of our people,” Pollard said. “That is what drives what we do.”